5 Things USC's New President Could Do To Stop Sexual Harassment

USC has been in turmoil over its response to accusations of sexual harassment and abuse, including by Dr. George Tyndall, a gynecologist who saw student patients at the USC Engemann Student Health Center (pictured in this file photo). Some at USC say a new report from the School of Social Work offers a path toward reforming sexual harassment policies at the university. (Photo by Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images)

As you may have heard, USC is trying to weather some scandals: a meth-abusing medical school dean, faculty that sexually harass students, and a former campus gynecologist who may have abused thousands of patients.

Since May, hundreds of USC faculty and students have called on the university to begin making changes in policies and practices to get rid of a culture and environment that they say swept those problems under the rug and allowed them to continue.

Now, USC's School of Social Work — the training ground for professionals who help people overcome abuse — has produced a 45-page report that some in the university see as a blueprint for campus-wide healing.

The report was meant to address an incident of sexual harassment last year that rocked that very school.

"We're going to have to regain the trust of students and staff and faculty and our community," said Devon Brooks, the professor who co-chaired the sexual harassment task force that authored the report. "We're hoping that not just through our words but through our concrete actions, and involvement of those who are vulnerable in some ways."

Here are five key recommendations from the report that are in the process of being carried out by the School of Social Work:

  • Adopt a clear statement that the school will ensure a safe environment that's free of sexual harassment and misconduct
  • Create a three-year action plan to change the culture and environment of the school in order to prevent sexual harassment and misconduct
  • Create a peer group to help students thinking about and coming forward with allegations of abuse
  • Identify gaps in policies to improve prevention, identification and reporting of sexual harassment and misconduct
  • Measure progress in part through results of a new sexual harassment survey

The report's recommendations are directed at the School of Social Work but could have a role in university-wide efforts toward reform.

"The model, if you will, that was implemented by the school's task force, I see influencing the approach being taken at the university level," Brooks said.

The university announced last month the creation of a sexual harassment task force formed to come up with changes for all of USC.

Brooks is a member of that task force, too. He said the report from the School of Social Work will be talked about in the new task force's first meeting next month. But the impact of the recommendations shouldn't stop there, he said — other universities with their own sexual harassment problems could use the report as a template for change.

So what makes this report different than previous efforts?

The last major attempt at reform was criticized by some faculty as a top-down effort that had little input from faculty and students. Then-USC President Max Nikias released an action plan back in May, even as faculty and students called for him to step down.

"This report comes from faculty, staff, and students," said USC Professor Ange-Marie Hancock Alfaro. "I think it makes this report more achievable."

Out of the 37 members of the task force that authored the report, 15 were faculty and 14 were students.

Alfaro likes the report's three-year action plan timeline for change and the identification of policies that need to be reformed.

It's unclear whether USC President Wanda Austin has seen the report yet, but Brooks said it's likely she will.

After more than a year of headline-grabbing scandals and a summer roller coaster of questions over the transparency and accountability of leadership at USC, some activists there are starting to feel hopeful.

"I believe that USC is taking the right next steps for continuing to change for the better," said Robin Petering, who graduated last year with a Ph.D. from the School of Social Work. "I think it's going to be a really important time for new leadership to make some maybe bold decisions, and we really encourage that."


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